Projecting the toughest and easiest matchups in USU’s 2023 football schedule – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN — The full schedule for Utah State, complete with dates, TV broadcasts and kickoff times (at least most of them) is all out in the open. With that it’s time to give a first look at how the Aggies could fare against this schedule.

Prognostications of the Aggies currently have them finishing the season right around .500 with most leaning toward 5-7 rather than 6-6 or 7-5. The heavy roster turnover leaves USU as a great unknown with few bold enough to predict an improvement from last year’s 6-7 team when Utah State is replacing 14 starters between offense and defense, let alone all of the backups it’s also having to replace due to portal attrition. Head Coach Blake Anderson has done his best to fill the team with talent and now he will need to prepare his team for a fairly challenging schedule.

This analysis will break USU’s lineup of games into four tiers of games with the first tier being the most winnable and the fourth being the hardest to win (games are listed in chronological order within the tiers). Many of these games are ones that right now could go either way so with a push in the right or wrong direction could send this year’s Aggie squad either tumbling into the depths or into unexpected contender status.

Tier 1 — Wins written in pen

Week 2 vs Idaho State

  • Average Preseason Rank – N/A
  • Last game against — USU won 51-13 (2017)
  • All-time series — USU leads 18-2

Utah State’s embarrassing blowout loss to Weber State last year will live on in infamy, but the reason that loss was so hard to swallow is that such losses are extremely rare. The Aggies aren’t in the habit of losing to FCS teams and going back-to-back seasons with losses to non-FBS teams is a highly unlikely thing to happen. It’s especially unlikely since Idaho State isn’t a perennial FCS playoff team like the Wildcats are. The Tigers are a combined 2-20 over the last two season, 7-33 over the last four. Their last winning season was a 6-5 campaign in 2018.

This game will be the Aggies’ home opener and will probably be a tune-up game after a likely loss to Iowa in the season opener. It’ll be a great game to help get the many newcomers some successful, quality reps.

Week 11 vs Nevada

  • Average Preseason Rank – 117.7
  • Last game against — Nevada won 34-9 (2020)
  • All-time series — Nevada leads 19-7

After losing head coach Jay Norvell (and a large chunk of its roster) in the offseason of 2021-22, Nevada limped through last season with a 2-10 overall record — tied for its worst record of the 21st century. This year gives them a chance to regroup.

Nevada brought in several Pac 12 transfers to fill spots in the offense. The running back rotation could feature two of these, Sean Dollars and Ashton Hays who come from Oregon and California, respectively. Keleki Latu, also from Cal, should factor in at tight end. If these incoming transfers pan out, the Wolf Pack offense should be much, much better than the one that ranked 120th in points per game last year.

On defense the Wolf Pack have more returning experience and more Pac 12 transfers. Six starters return, spread evenly across the defensive line, linebackers and secondary. But the defense wasn’t all that much better than the offense, ranking 103rd in points allowed per game. This unit will have almost as much improving to do, it’ll just have a little more experience to work with.

This matchup happening at the end of the season could be rather interesting. Both teams could be fighting and clawing for bowl eligibility and will view this game as highly winnable. And given both teams are facing a great deal of turnover, the fact this will be late in the season will be a test to see which team managed to gel more during the regular season.

Week 13 @ New Mexico

  • Average Preseason Rank – 128.0
  • Last game against — USU won 27-10 (2022)
  • All-time series — USU leads 16-13

The Lobos have been the doormat of the Mountain West for more than half a decade, with six straight seasons of winning no more than three games in a single campaign. This year doesn’t appear to be the one to change that.

An infusion of transfers on offense gives hope that New Mexico won’t be like last year’s team that finished next-to-last in both points and yards per game. The Lobos will feature a new quarterback, UAB transfer Dylan Hopkins, along with largely new crews at wide receiver and running back. Of course, the fact most of the offense is new comes with its own set of worries and concerns over whether it will all come together.

A source of worry for the Lobos is the potential downfall of what was a solid defense. Rocky Long, who had returned to the team he was once head coach of for a decade to be the defensive coordinator, is now in Syracuse. Along with that loss, the Lobos lost nine defensive starters, which includes six of the team’s top seven tacklers.

This is the only road game of this section, but since joining the Mountain West the Aggies are 4-1 against the Lobos on the road. It’d take a truly bad game for USU to drop this one to New Mexico.

Tier 2 – The very winnable games

Week 5 @ UConn

  • Average Preseason Rank – 105.3
  • Last game against — USU won 31-20 (2022)
  • All-time series — USU leads 2-0

UConn gave the Aggies an early-season scare, but given the context of the entire season for both squads the score makes a lot more sense in hindsight. The Huskies won the most games in a single season since 2015 and also made a bowl game for the first time since that year. They finished with the same overall record as the Aggies (6-7) after losing their bowl game, but that record represented a huge step up for the floundering program. UConn had won a combined four games in the three seasons prior to 2023.

Plenty of experience returns for the Huskies. They return depth at quarterback plus a transfer who will make the starting spot a three-horse race this offseason. Four starters on the offensive line, the starting running back and the second-leading receiver all return on the offense. And on defense, Jackson Mitchell returns as the fourth-leading tackler in the nation alongside seven other starters which includes the entire defensive line and three out of four starters in the secondary.

This game will be one of the biggest early season indicators of how this season will go. A win would be a significant positive as it would show that the Aggies can beat a decent team on the road. Even a close loss wouldn’t be the worst thing. But a poor performance will display the complete opposite. Utah State will have a lot to prove in this matchup.

Week 6 vs Colorado State

  • Average Preseason Rank – 114.0
  • Last game against — USU won 17-13 (2022)
  • All-time series — Colorado State leads 39-37-2

While the Rams went a rather underwhelming 3-9 last year, their prospects this year appear much higher. The defense returns eight starters and while the offense returns only four, at least two of those could be significant players in flipping Colorado State’s fortunes. Clay Millen, who quietly led the FBS in completion percentage as a freshmen (the only underclassman in the top ten and only freshman in the top 20 in that category), returns at quarterback and will have his top target, first team All-MW receiver Tory Horton, along for the ride.

Getting to play this game at home should be a significant boon as the Aggies should be able to brunt the improvements of the Rams with the advantage of playing on their own turf. That and hopefully they’ll have the luxury of not having to throw a true freshman quarterback into the fire mid-game.

Week 8 @ San Jose State

  • Average Preseason Rank – 93.7
  • Last game against — USU won 35-31 (2022)
  • All-time series — Tied at 20-20-1

The Aggies have not lost to the Spartans in 10 straight matchups, and with a win this year would wind up taking the all-time series lead for the first time since 1980. But while SJSU isn’t going to let USU’s win streak reach further into double digits without a notable fight, it’s ability to do so is a bit in question.

Spartans quarterback Chevan Cordeiro is projected to be either the best or second-best QB in the conference, but his receiving talent took a major hit with the departure of Elijah Cooks, who accounted for a third of Cordeiro’s passing yards and 10 of his 23 passing touchdowns. The second-leading receiver, Justin Lockhart, returns but isn’t likely to be the same elite target Cooks was. On paper, having Cordeiro and Cooks leading an offense should have helped last year, but the Spartans were below-average last year despite having two of the best players in the conference at their relative positions. How the offense fares with one of those two missing will be a major question.

Alongside losses on offense, SJSU’s solid defense (30th in points allowed per game in 2022) took a notable hit. Three different defensive players for the Spartans earned first team all-conference honors and all three are gone. Each of those players were multi-year leaders of the team in terms of production (not only did all three earn first team honors in 2023, but all were named to the first team multiple times in their careers) and their loss can hardly be understated.

Even if SJSU struggles to reload right away this year, the program’s years of being a doormat in the league appear to be over for now as Brent Brennan has flipped the Spartans’ fortunes with a 24-20 record the last tour years after six years of going a combined 22-52. Playing on the road in San Jose will bring a challenge that the Aggies will need to step up to if they want to mark this game off as a W late in the season.

Tier 3 – Tricky, but possible wins

Week 3 @ Air Force

  • Average Preseason Rank – 64.3
  • Last game against — USU won 34-27 (2022)
  • All-time series — Air Force leads 6-5

Historically, winning at Air Force has been a tough ask. The only two USU teams to accomplish the feat are the 2021 and 2013 teams (perhaps coincidently, both Aggie squads made it to the MW Championship game those seasons). Doing so in a potentially volatile season, and early in the schedule, could prove rather difficult.

The Falcons return quite a bit of talent from last year’s 10-3 team. A defense that allowed just 13.4 points per game (third in the nation) returns seven starters and the offensive line — crucial to the run-heavy option offense — returns four starters. There are two major losses to the team, though. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels and fullback Brad Roberts. Roberts led FBS in individual rushing yards with 1,728 while Daniels added 695. The two accounted for more than half of the team’s total rushing yards last year. Returning running back John Lee Eldridge could be the man to step up and fill those big shoes. Eldridge ran for 766 yards, including 7.7 per rush attempt, as the team’s third-leading rusher in attempts and second-leading rusher in total yards.

Utah State’s main hope could come in the fact that both times the Aggies have faced Air Force under Anderson they’ve cracked the Falcons’ defense wide open. In the last two seasons, the Falcons have allowed 13.4 points per game against teams that aren’t Utah State. Against the Aggies they’ve given up 83 points. As long as USU’s defense is able to make just enough plays, it seems Anderson should have the offense ready to put up points on the Falcons.

Week 4 vs James Madison

  • Average Preseason Rank – 76.0
  • Last game against — First-ever meeting
  • All-time series — First-ever meeting

James Madison leaped onto the FBS scene by going 8-3 on the year, making a brief appearance in the AP Top 25 and finishing T-3rd in the Sun Belt. What they’ll do in year two as an FBS program will show how good the Dukes are in terms of rebuilding.

The biggest challenge for repeating last year’s success will be finding replacements for every starting skill position player on offense — particularly important as the Dukes ranked 13th in the country in points per game which helped drive that success. They lost their starting quarterback, who threw for nearly 2,700 yards and 25 TDs to just five INTs, the starting running back who ran for 908 yards on 5.7 yards per attempt, and the leading receiver who tallied 1,015 yards and seven touchdowns is gone (along with three of the other top five receivers on the team). There is good news for the Dukes, though, as all five offensive linemen are returning for another year.

Things are a bit better on defense for James Madison as seven starters return for a squad that ranked 23rd in points allowed per game last year. Each unit on the defense returns at least one starter, spreading the experience all around that side of the ball.

Week 7 vs Fresno State

  • Average Preseason Rank – 67.0
  • Last game against — Fresno State won 35-16 (2020)
  • All-time series — Fresno State leads 18-13-1

After a sluggish 1-4 start to 2022, the Bulldogs surged through the back half of the schedule, averaging 36.6 points per game in their last eight contests to secure a Mountain West championship and a bowl victory. Unfortunately for them, much of the personnel who paved the way for that great run are now gone. Fresno State had three first-team All-MW players on the offense alone — quarterback Jake Haener, wide receiver Jalen Moreno-Cropper, and running back Jordan Mims — and all three are gone.

How the Bulldogs pan out this year will rely on how well they can reload after losing so much talent. In the last decade, Fresno State hasn’t fared particularly well in years following the departure of highly productive quarterbacks. In 2014, the year after Derek Carr’s departure (and an 11-2 2013 season) the Bulldogs went 6-8. In 2019, following Marcus McMaryion’s graduation and his two-year run with back-to-back 10-win seasons, Fresno State went just 4-8.

The Bulldogs may need to rely more on its defense this year which, with seven returning starters from a unit that ranked 14th in points allowed per game in 2022, seems like something they can comfortably do.

Fresno State can certainly reload after losing significant talent from its best seasons, but the Aggies could catch them in a rebuilding year to snag a solid victory. In fact, playing the Bulldogs at the right time seems to be Utah State’s M.O. in this series. Since joining the Mountain West, the Aggies haven’t played Fresno State during the regular season in any year where the Bulldogs wound up with a winning record (the one time USU played an FSU team with a winning record was in 2013, the year the two sides met in the conference title game).

Week 10 @ San Diego State

  • Average Preseason Rank – 72.0
  • Last game against — USU won 46-13 (2021)
  • All-time series — SDSU leads 13-3

Aggie fans well remember the last matchup with the Aztecs which ended with Utah State hoisting the Mountain West championship trophy in Anderson’s first season with the team. Historically, this matchup has heavily favored SDSU, but Utah State has won two of the last three matchups with both wins coming in California. But this will be USU’s first trip to Snapdragon Stadium.

Last year the Aztecs struggled to start the year under the weight of one of the worst offenses in the country. But over the last eight games of the season the offense improved, largely because of the switch to Jalen Mayden at quarterback. Mayden threw for just over 2,000 yards with 12 touchdowns (10 interceptions) in eight starts while also providing a dual-threat aspect to the position. With him at the head of the offense, and a deep group of running backs, the Aztecs will have both a capable passing offense and potentially a dangerous rushing attack. The primary thing that could get in the way is the fact they’ll have to replace almost the entire offensive line.

The offense projects to be at least decent, but defense is where SDSU usually hangs its hat. Last year the Aztecs ranked 19th in points allowed per game but lost nine of 11 starters, among those being three All-Mountain West selectees. One of the returning starters, Patrick McMorris, was also an All-MW selection so there’s at least some veteran star-power carryover from last year to this.

A late-season matchup could favor the Aggies if they build up their strength, skill and cohesion on both sides of the ball. If the season is going well at this point Utah State could find itself motivated and with momentum, much like what happened in 2021 when USU steamrolled the 19th-ranked Aztecs in their own building. That is, of course, assuming things will have gone very well by November. If the season is up-and-down, or even mostly down, this will prove to be a very difficult road game against one of the conference’s best teams.

Tier 4 – Don’t get your hopes up

Week 1 @ Iowa

  • Average Preseason Rank – 26.3
  • Last game against — Iowa won 48-7 (2002)
  • All-time series — Iowa leads 2-0

Utah State’s record against Power 5 teams is already shaky, but against a team like Iowa that will be receiving votes in the preseason AP Top 25 this game gets even trickier. The Hawkeyes caught some strays from college football fans for having one of the most inept offenses in the country last year but its defense made up for a lack of points on most occasions. Iowa allowed more than 13 points just three times last year, two of those coming against teams ranked in the top four of the AP Poll (#2 Ohio State and #4 Michigan).

Iowa lost a lot of its skill position players on offense which could hurt the ability of the offense to overcome its struggles from last year. Michigan transfer quarterback Cade McNamara will seek a redemption arc, having gone from leading the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff to being benched a year ago.

What shouldn’t change at all about Iowa is its defensive prowess. It will have to replace some very good players, including Butkus Award winner Jack Campbell along with five other defensive starters. But re-loading hasn’t been a problem for a Hawkeye’s program that’s ranked top 20 in points allowed per game for eight straight seasons.

The fact that USU’s toughest game will be its first of the year is not favorable in the slightest. The Aggies will need time to gel as a team that’s filled to the brim with newcomers on both sides of the ball. They’ll need to play their best game of the year, at least on offense, in game one of the season, the game where they’re likely to have the least chemistry and least on-field experience. Stranger things have happened, though.

Week 12 vs Boise State

  • Average Preseason Rank – 47.0
  • Last game against — Boise State won 42-23 (2022)
  • All-time series — Boise State leads 22-5

Over the last 24 years Utah State has one victory over the Broncos, a memorable-but-rare 52-26 upset in 2015. Aside from that anomaly, the Aggies haven’t been able to break though against Boise State. Not even the great teams in 2018 or 2021 (neither of whom were within a touchdown of beating the Broncos).

Boise State hasn’t been the same BCS-busting program they were in the late 2000s/early 2010s but did recover from a 7-5 season in 2021 to go 10-4 last year, including an 8-0 record in MW regular season play. From that 10-4 team the Broncos return nearly every starting offensive player (nine in total) including their terrifying three-headed rushing attack of Taylen Green, George Holani and Ashton Jeanty. The three ran for a collective 2,566 yards on a combined 5.6 yards per carry. Returning those three players, along with three starters on the offensive line, will make for a rushing attack as potent as any team in the Mountain West (Air Force included). Alongside the run game, Green will have each of his top four receiving targets returning to help him along after an up-and-down passing season as a freshman.

With a likely improved offense and a defense that shouldn’t have issues reloading, the Broncos appear to be the clear favorites to win the Mountain West. Even in a year where BSU struggled at quarterback and were below average on offense, it still rolled through its conference schedule. It’s hard to say an improved Broncos squad will do much less in 2023, making this an incredibly hard matchup for the Aggies who do not project to be all that much improved from a year ago. Playing this one at home could help, but in the last three matchups on Merlin Olsen Field the Aggies have still lost by an average of 28.7 points to the Broncos.

Source link

Share This Article



Related Articles